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VALLEY WEEKEND | MUSIC

Noted Baritone Intent on Proving His Broad Talents

Vladimir Chernov doesn't mind being known as a performer of Verdi's operas, but he hopes upcoming solos show he has more to offer.

November 21, 1996|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Vladimir Chernov, the acclaimed Russian baritone, remembers well his first visit to Los Angeles in 1989, when he came to sing alongside Placido Domingo in Verdi's "Don Carlo." It was an alien city to him in more ways than one.

"The first time there was a bit of a shock," he said in a phone interview last week from Vienna. "It was like going to the moon or another planet, very sad for me. I could not speak English, I could not communicate with people, I could not find the rehearsal place.

"But the next time I came, I realized that this was the normal system. I had to learn driving and buy a map immediately when I got there. In Los Angeles, you should also use aircraft because of the distance."

That was several years, and many Verdi productions, back. His Russian-inflected English is fine and communicative these days, and his career trajectory is generally upward. When Chernov returns to town for a recital Friday at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, launching the "Stars of the Met" series, he arrives as an operatic baritone in demand around the world.

He made his U.S. debut in "La Boheme" in Boston in 1989, just before coming to Los Angeles, and went on to work at London's Covent Garden, with the San Francisco Opera, the Chicago Lyric Opera, and others. Most notably, Chernov has become a Verdi specialist of choice, who made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Verdi's "Luisa Miller" in the 1990-91 season and who sang in Verdi's "Stiffelio" at the Met last year.

He has lived in New York with his wife and young son for six years now, although work often takes him out of town or off the continent. "New York chose me. I did not choose New York," he commented. The Chernovs also maintain an apartment in St. Petersburg, and the blood of Mother Russia still courses through his veins.

"It's very difficult to forget Russian roots in five years. Five years was like yesterday," he said.

Trained at the Moscow Conservatory, Chernov joined the Kirov Opera in 1981, an experience he found both frustrating and inspiring.

"There was such a high level of vocal technique and lots of great musicians and conductors," he said. "On the other hand, you didn't have the chance to improve, because you work at home and the classroom and then don't go to the stage. You might have one or two performances in two or three months. It's a socialistic system."

Not one to waste time, Chernov used his down time to develop a solo repertoire for recitals. "I used to learn lots of classic music, like Haydn, Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Gluck, Handel, and of course, Bach, lots of oratorios and cantatas."

But after winning various competitions, particularly the Miriam Helin Vocal Competition in Helsinki, Chernov's operatic career began to take off, fueled particularly by his "Don Carlo" performance with the Music Center Opera.

Did he plan to focus on Verdi? "I never thought I would become this in the future," he explained. "I love Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, but, of course, I also love Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Wagner. But, so far, in five seasons, I performed in 14 Verdi operas, so that's what I became, a Verdi-an baritone, because it's a rare type of voice."

Although he worked on repertoire for solo performances while in Russia, Chernov gave his first recital in the United States only in January of this year, in Manhattan's Alice Tully Hall. Then-Los Angeles Times music critic Martin Bernheimer was there, and reported that Chernov "seemed intent on proving that he is a probing musician--a poet, perhaps, rather than a high-decibel acrobat."

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Don't expect to hear Verdi on Chernov's program at the Alex Theatre. He plans to perform Russian music, as well as Schubert art songs and Gustav Mahler's grand "Songs of Travel."

"This is my favorite now," said Chernov of the Mahler piece. "In Italy, we would say it's my 'horse of battle.' It's beautiful, wonderful music."

In his meteoric rise in the opera world, Chernov has learned about typecasting, a downside of success. Some people think of him only as a Verdi-an baritone, not realizing that he can sing a broader repertoire.

"It's a pity you have to always prove yourself," he said. "Seriously, they don't believe that you have more to offer. My agent offers my name as a soloist, and they say, 'How is that possible? He is a Verdi-an baritone. He cannot sing solo.' "

With an increasing number of solo performances on his roster, Chernov plans to prove himself, while being true to his instincts. He is eager to demonstrate that there is life before and after Verdi.

DETAILS

* WHAT: Vladimir Chernov in recital.

* WHERE: Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday.

* HOW MUCH: $40-$48.50.

* CALL: (800) 233-3123.

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